Trash-strewn par­adise

Pacific is­land lit­tered with 38,000,000 pieces of trash.

Cape Breton Post - - Cape Bre­ton - BY NICK PERRY

When re­searchers trav­elled to a tiny, un­in­hab­ited is­land in the mid­dle of the Pacific Ocean, they were as­ton­ished to find an es­ti­mated 38 mil­lion pieces of trash washed up on the beaches.

Al­most all of the garbage they found on Hen­der­son Is­land was made from plas­tic. There were toy sol­diers, domi­nos, tooth­brushes and hun­dreds of hard­hats of ev­ery shape, size and colour.

The re­searchers say the den­sity of trash was the high­est recorded any­where in the world, de­spite Hen­der­son Is­land’s ex­treme re­mote­ness. The is­land is lo­cated about half­way be­tween New Zealand and Chile and is rec­og­nized as a UNESCO world her­itage site.

Jen­nifer Lavers, a re­search sci­en­tist at Aus­tralia’s Univer­sity of Tas­ma­nia, was lead au­thor of the re­port, which was pub­lished Tues­day in “Pro­ceed­ings of the Na­tional Academy of Sci­ences.”

Lavers said Hen­der­son Is­land is at the edge of a vor­tex of ocean cur­rents known as the South Pacific gyre, which tends to cap­ture and hold float­ing trash.

“The quan­tity of plas­tic there is truly alarm­ing,” Lavers told The As­so­ci­ated Press. “It’s both beau­ti­ful and ter­ri­fy­ing.”

She said she some­times found her­self get­ting mes­mer­ized by the va­ri­ety and colours of the plas­tic that lit­ters the is­land be­fore the tragedy of it would sink in again.

Lavers and six oth­ers stayed on the is­land for 3 1/2 months in 2015 while con­duct­ing the study. They found the trash weighed an es­ti­mated 17.6 tons and that more than two-thirds of it was buried in shal­low sed­i­ment on the beaches.

Lavers said she no­ticed green toy sol­diers that looked iden­ti­cal to those her brother played with as a child in the early 1980s, as well as red mo­tels from the Mo­nop­oly board game.

She said the most com­mon items they found were cig­a­rette lighters and tooth­brushes. One of the strangest was a baby paci­fier.

She said they found a sea tur­tle that had died af­ter get­ting caught in an aban­doned fish­ing net and a crab that was liv­ing in a cos­met­ics con­tainer.

By clear­ing a part of a beach of trash and then watch­ing new pieces ac­cu­mu­late, Lavers said they were able to es­ti­mate that more than 13,000 pieces of trash wash up ev­ery day on the is­land, which is about 10 kilo­me­tres (6 miles) long and 5 kilo­me­tres (3 miles) wide.

Hen­der­son Is­land is part of the Pit­cairn Is­lands group, a Bri­tish de­pen­dency. It is so re­mote that Lavers said she missed her own wed­ding af­ter the boat com­ing to col­lect the group was de­layed.

Luck­ily, she said, the guests were still in Tahiti, in French Poly­ne­sia, when she showed up three days late, and she still got mar­ried.

Lavers said she is so ap­palled by the amount of plas­tic in the oceans that she has taken to us­ing a bam­boo iPhone case and tooth­brush.

“We need to dras­ti­cally re­think our re­la­tion­ship with plas­tic,” she said. “It’s some­thing that’s de­signed to last for­ever, but is of­ten only used for a few fleet­ing mo­ments and then tossed away.”

Melissa Bowen, an oceanog­ra­pher at the Univer­sity of Auck­land in New Zealand who was not in­volved in the study, said that winds and cur­rents in the gyre cause the buildup of plas­tic items on places like Hen­der­son Is­land.

“As we get more and more of th­ese types of stud­ies, it is bring­ing home the re­al­ity of plas­tic in the oceans,” Bowen said.

“We need to dras­ti­cally re­think our re­la­tion­ship with plas­tic. It’s some­thing that’s de­signed to last for­ever, but is of­ten only used for a few fleet­ing mo­ments and then tossed away.”

Jen­nifer Lavers,re­search sci­en­tist

JEN­NIFER LAVERS VIA AP

Plas­tic de­bris is strewn on the beach on Hen­der­son Is­land.

JEN­NIFER LAVERS VIA AP

In this 2015 photo pro­vided by Jen­nifer Lavers, a crab uses as shel­ter a piece of plas­tic de­bris on the beach on Hen­der­son Is­land.

JEN­NIFER LAVERS VIA AP

When re­searchers trav­eled to the tiny, un­in­hab­ited is­land in the mid­dle of the Pacific Ocean, they were as­ton­ished to find an es­ti­mated 38 mil­lion pieces of trash washed up on the beaches.

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